As comms professionals we’ve always been taught that face to face is always best. It feels instinctively right and surveys always confirm it to be true – given the choice, employees will always prefer to receive information face to face from their own boss. As a consultant and trainer, I myself have never strayed from the path when advising clients. Of course it’s true. It makes perfect sense. But what’s the point of face to face communication? No, really, what’s the point? Why is seeing a leader on a platform giving a presentation any more effective than being sent the slides by email, or downloading a PDF off the intranet? Why are people so keen on being in the same room?
The answer is not in the words. It’s in the eyes. People want to communicate F2F because they want to see the other person’s eyes … and the face, and the expression, and the posture. Face to face is a physical medium, and that’s why we like it. Approach a new born baby (well, give it a week or two!) and watch the way it studies your eyes. It’s fascinated. The baby will stare into your eyes searching for meaning. We never lose that curiosity. Eye contact is one of the essential ingredients of human relationships. There’s an old saying that goes “never trust anyone you haven’t looked in the eye”. Eye contact is vital to building trust, so when our leaders ask us to trust them, they’ll stand a much better chance if they came to actually meet us. It’s probably why we don’t trust politicians – because the vast majority of us have never looked one in the eye. Many of us will have people in our LinkedIn network who we’ve only briefly met, say at a conference. But why do we feel we know them? Because we’ve looked into their eyes, and they’ve looked into ours. Face to face communication is not so much about what’s said in the room, it’s more about what happens in the room. It’s far better to have a leader go round the room meeting everyone and looking into their eyes, than up on platform reading off a slide. I heard a lovely quote the other day on a creative leadership webinar that said “leaders should be generous with their eyes”, which I think puts it rather well.
And it’s not just about eyes. The human face has almost 90 muscles and so it’s an incredibly informative feature. You hear about people’s face ‘lighting up’ when they’re excited or ‘looking down in the dumps’ when they’re fed up. Interpreting facial expressions is a party trick of our right brain. We’re instinctively good at reading expressions and emotions, when words aren’t required (particularly women). Emotional connection also builds trust and engagement, but how much emotion do we see in the typical workplace? We teach managers not to show emotion – don’t blink, don’t let them see you sweat, don’t admit to any failings. We expect leaders to be strong and pokerfaced. But that’s not conducive to effective face to face communication. Surely we want communication to be natural, expressive, collaborative, authentic and have some emotional content? That’s why we choose face to face, right? But most leaders feel they need to leave their real self at the office door. In meetings and presentations, we listen to the words but we listen to the eyes and the body more. And the body never stops communicating. This culture of emotional impotence has got to change, and it is I hope. The term ‘emotional intelligence’ – the capacity to understand and relate to people – is gaining some traction in many organisations as leaders realise the increasing need for skills like empathy, creativity and relationship building. This is what builds trust and engagement. As comms people, we know we’re right to promote the face to face channel, but we should remind ourselves why.